My first willow baskets

The first term of the two-year City Lit basketry course is over, and I’ve had my first experience of making willow baskets.

Our tutor was Annemarie O’Sullivan, an acclaimed basketmaker who trained at City Lit herself. She has a studio in East Sussex where she grows her own willow.

We started off by making round bases. As most of us were complete beginners we were all fingers and thumbs, but Annemarie was very patient, demonstrating several times and emphasising the placement of the willow and the position of the hands.

willow basket base

The base is supposed to be slightly domed (like an upturned saucer) because when the stakes are put in they will tend to push the base down. So if the base is flat to start with you could end up with a rounded base, which will wobble.

By the end of the first session we had all managed to make at least one base – only to be told that we had to make another three bases for homework! Practice makes perfect I suppose. 🙂

willow bases

Most of these are brown willow (willow with bark on), but the top one is buff willow (willow without bark). All willow needs to be soaked before use, but buff willow takes much less time to soak (a few hours) than brown willow (a few days). And if it’s over- or undersoaked the results are not good. So I had to plan ahead, especially if I wanted a bath!

soaking willow in bath

Next we moved on to staking up – adding the side stakes around which the basket is woven. This involves a sharp knife and requires rather a lot of room if you have 32 stakes protruding from the base like a willow sunray! It becomes more manageable once they are tied up.

staked up

The next stage is upsetting – no jokes please! In fact seeing Annemarie demonstrate this was far from upsetting – it made it seem very easy. Upsetting creates a strong ridge at the edge for the basket to sit on and holds all the stakes in position. It’s usually done with a type of weave called waling, which has a rope-like appearance.

For weaving the sides we used English randing, which is woven with one willow rod per round and produces a slight spiral pattern.

English randing

We were also shown French randing, where all the weaving rods (24 or 32) are inserted at the same time. Again, this requires a lot of room, so I stuck to English randing for practicality!

After two sets of randing we wove a few rounds of waling to strengthen the rim and then added a border by bending the stakes. This is where I discovered that some of the stakes I had used in my early baskets were far too thick, which made them difficult to manouevre without kinking (a cardinal sin) and certainly made the basket seem over-engineered!

basket border

It was much easier when the stakes were not as chunky.

basket border

Finally, it was time to have a go at making handles. This was definitely my least favourite part of the process – it involves a technique called cranking, as demonstrated here by a basketmaker in Ireland, Hanna Van Aelst.

I did finally get the hang of the twisting technique, but my handles still look a bit like afterthoughts. Luckily they can easily be cut off. So don’t expect any of my baskets to have handles! 😉

basket handle

So these were my first three completed baskets.

willow basketwillow basketwillow basket

Willow work is hard on the hands, so I was looking forward to giving them a rest in December.

But as some of you may know, I am a trustee of a local charity, the Friends of Windmill Gardens, which runs tours of Brixton Windmill and other events in the surrounding park. Every year they organise a Santa’s grotto in the windmill and have a festive bake off to encourage people to bake items made with Brixton Windmill flour. The winners get a prize hamper.

You can see what’s coming, can’t you! The chair of the trustees asked if I could make a couple of baskets which could be filled with festive goodies as the prizes. I said I couldn’t do square baskets (apparently they are very difficult), but I thought that making another couple of round baskets would be good practice and help to consolidate what I had learnt. So I agreed to make two baskets, one with a base diameter of 30cm and one of 40cm.

The 40cm basket was by far the biggest I have attempted. Luckily, Annemarie used the size as an example in class of how to work out how many stakes and base sticks you need, and what lengths of willow would be required. So I had some help with the planning.

But making it seemed to go on for ever – it’s big enough to hold a small dog! And it also demonstrated the limits of the size of pieces that can be soaked in the bath. 😉 It’s not a perfect circle, but I’m pretty pleased with it. And I can see a vast improvement in the quality of my bases.

willow basket

After such a mammoth piece I couldn’t face making another base so for the 30cm basket I used a practice base I’d made previously. It wasn’t brilliant, but once the basket has been filled nobody will see it! Here are the two baskets together.

two willow baskets

Plaited basketry at City Lit

Last week we finished the first module of the two-year basketry course at City Lit. The subject was plaiting, and the tutor was Polly Pollock. I missed the first week because I was on holiday in Uzbekistan, so as soon as I got back it was straight into a marathon strip-cutting session!

We started off with watercolour paper, as it is strong but flexible. However, we were encouraged to experiment with other materials and also to add overlays (extra elements threaded through after weaving the main basked) to add colour and texture.

The three main techniques we covered were bias plaiting, straight plaiting and skewed forms. We combined these with different borders – zigzag, flat and sandwich and sew.

Here are some of my practice samples made with bias plaiting using khadi paper, an old map, newspaper cordage and vinyl wallpaper.

bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl

Here’s a straight plaited vessel made with watercolour paper.

straight plait vessel

And here’s a skewed vessel, also made with watercolour paper.

skewed vessel

For our final module assignment we had to make a series of three related pieces using some or all of these techniques, inspired by the modern architecture of Rotterdam.

I have to admit that this was a bit of a challenge for me, as my inspiration usually comes from natural rather than human-made forms. But even I got drawn in by the weird and wacky architecture of this Dutch city.

Here are the results, all made with watercolour paper, damp proof membrane and flattened corrugated cardboard.

plaited basket plaited basket plaited basket

I have to admit that the third piece, of a vessel within a vessel, was actually inspired by another building in London, and its spiky “haircut” was just a piece of whimsy on my part (though I could argue it’s supposed to be a roof garden 😉 ). It’s also not really tall enough, but I ran out of paper and time as it had to be finished for evaluation last week.

I really enjoyed this first module. It was quite intense – and hard work cutting all the strips! – and moved me out of my comfort zone.

This week we move on to willow, which I suspect will also be challenging!

Willow bark basketry with Maggie Smith

I’ve just returned from a three-day workshop on willow bark basketry with the wonderful Maggie Smith. Having worked with neither willow nor bark before, I was slightly worried, but Maggie’s work is fabulous so I couldn’t pass up the chance.

baskets by maggie smith baskets by maggie smith baskets by maggie smith

We started by learning how to strip the bark from willow, with a knife, willow brake or by pounding. Easing the bark off around joints or knots without tearing it can be tricky!

maggie smith stripping willow

But by lunchtime on the first day we had all started to pile up little rolls of bark. The colour of the interior was amazing, ranging from pale yellow to chartreuse green to deep orange. However, this colour does tend to fade as the bark dries.

willow bark stripping willow bark rolls

Maggie told us to discard any preconceived ideas about what we wanted to make and study the bark very carefully to see what was suggested by the marks and texture.

willow bark exterior willow bark interior

I liked the arrangement of holes on one of my pieces of bark so decided to make a pouch consisting of a random weave container wrapped in a whole piece of bark.

The next day we learnt how to cut the bark into even strips, and I started making my random weave piece around a sawdust mould.

willow bark random weave willow bark random weave

Then I cut the whole piece of bark to length, punched holes in it and wrapped the container, stitching on a handle to keep it in position.

willow bark random weave

I left it to dry overnight and the next day managed the tricky task of removing the mould without damaging the bark!

As I had a bit of time left, I also made another coiled piece, using different widths of willow bark strips.

willow bark coiling

Here are the two final finished pieces.

willow bark baskets by Kim Winter

And here are some of the wonderfully diverse and inspiring pieces produced by other students in the class.

willow bark baskets willow bark baskets

Even better, I managed to add willow bark to my cordage collection!

willow bark cordage

 

Lines and Fragments by Tim Johnson

tim johnson little bags

“Understanding particular properties of particular plants during identification, harvest, processing, selection and finally making not only equips ourselves for making tasks in hand but also gives us a deeper connection to place and its complexity.”

The artist and basketmaker Tim Johnson has spent the past 25 years exploring the relationship between place and material, as this exhibition at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham makes clear.

Take the series of 42 little bags simply hung in three rows on the wall (and I would happily take them, every single one). It’s a fascinating display of sampling – the same technique with different materials, or the same materials with different techniques. Each one is absorbing in its details and range of possibilities.

His 2D Lines and Fragments series also incorporates found objects as well as earth pigments, dried herbs and fruit.

tim johnson lines and fragments

And his Curve series moves on with willow and earth pigments to develop the 3D form.

The Cortina works play with light and shadow – I particularly like the use of dried bean pods here.

Another one used yellow plastic coated wire.

My favourite pieces were  the Keeping Time baskets.

I particularly loved the cross sections of the bulrushes when close up.

Tim lives just outside Barcelona with another basketmaker, Monica Guilera, and there were some collaborative pieces on show.

It was also interesting to see some of the sources of his inspiration, including a squashed lampshade found in the road. 🙂

Lines and Fragments runs at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham until 31 August 2019.

Making a coiled sycamore seed

In a previous post I mentioned a course on coiled basketry I was taking with Polly Pollock at City Lit and described the different samples I had made.

The second half of the course focused on our own personal projects, developing the techniques we had learned to produce a piece or series of samples inspired by the seedpod theme.

My inspiration actually came from a piece of driftwood.

driftwood

It reminded me of a sycamore (US: maple) seed, so I thought I would try to weave something around it to create the “wings”.

At first I tried wrapped linear coiling with paper yarn, but it felt too solid and heavy – this was supposed to represent a floating, spinning seed.

linear coiling

So then I tried a more open weave approach, using blanket stitch with cordage, still with paper yarn. This worked better but was a bit too large.

sycamore seed sample

I tried changing materials, using a thinner cordage and enamelled wire for the blanket stitch. This was much better!

sycamore seed wire sample

There was still more experimenting to be done with varying the tension of the stitch to evoke the marks and form of the seed, but I finally got started.

sycamore seed wip

Finally, the finished piece:

sycamore seed

As ever, it was fascinating to see the very different pieces that everyone produced. I don’t have permission to post photos of others’ work, so you’ll have to take my word for it! But it was a fantastic course and I would highly recommend it.

There is also an exhibition coming up of work by students who are completing the two-year City Lit diploma in basketry. It’s at the Espacio Gallery in London from 23 to 28 July. I’ve seen some of the work on Instagram and it looks well worth a visit!

How long is a piece of string?

As long as you want, if you make it yourself. 🙂

In part of the basketry course I did with Polly Pollock at City Lit, we learnt how to prepare natural materials for weaving, including daffodil leaves.

Earlier this year, after the flowers had finished, I gathered a whole load of daffodil leaves before they started getting slimy and eaten by slugs and snails. I tied them into two bunches and hung them up to dry in the shady back garden.

daffodil leaves drying

After about three weeks they had shrunk considerably and changed colour from mostly green to mostly yellowy brown.

dried daffodil leaves

In class, we sprayed them with water and then rolled them in a damp towel and left them for about 10-15 minutes to soften up, before using them as a core material in coiled basketry – here’s the piece I made.

coiled daffodil leaves

However, one of the other students (thanks Gareth!) also showed me how to make cordage (aka string). This is a video I found on YouTube that demonstrates the method.

So I used the rest of the daffodil leaves to make some cordage. I started with 2-ply, using two leaves in each ply (ie four leaves in total).

2-ply daffodil cordage

It’s difficult to see in the photo, but there is lovely colour variation in the cordage from the different leaves. It also smells lovely, like hay!

There are a few bits sticking out where I joined in a new leaf – I will cut these off later.

I also made slightly thicker 3-ply cordage, using six leaves, two in each ply. Here’s a photo showing the relative thicknesses: the 3-ply is at the top, 2-ply underneath.

3-ply and 2-ply daffodil cordage

Because of the opposing twists, you can stop at any time and the cordage doesn’t unravel – so I can keep on going when I get more leaves!

Other long, thin leaves such as iris can also be used for this. I have a lot of crocosmia in my garden, so I’m looking forward to making more cordage in the autumn!

daffodil cordage

 

Different materials, different result

I seem to be getting more obsessed with basketry at the moment – I’m currently doing an eight-week course (one day a week) on coiled basketry with Polly Pollock at City Lit.

The first four weeks have been spent exploring different ways of starting baskets and working with different materials and stitches. In the second half of the course we are expected to work on our own projects around the theme of seedpods. So as you can imagine, this suits me down to the ground! 🙂

So far I’ve experimented with colour:

raffia coiled with hemp
Raffia coiled with hemp

With softer and harder materials:

fabric coiled with paper yarn
Fabric coiled with paper yarn
seagrass coiled with paper yarn
Seagrass coiled with paper yarn

With additions:

seagrass coiling with hare barley additions
Seagrass coiling with hare barley additions

And combining with felt:

coiling with felt
Coiling with felt

I also tried some “linear” coiling – creating rows rather than spiralling from the centre. The first sample I made with this technique had a thick core, which I wrapped with a stiff paper yarn. As I progressed, the piece began to twist quite spontaneously.

twisted coiled piece
Twisted coiling

I made similar pieces with the same core material but different wrapping fibres, which were all softer than the paper yarn. Some of these pieces twisted a little, others hardly at all.

I also tried making a piece with “ribs” to give a more defined form. I bound five lengths of seagrass together and coiled a thinner piece of green seagrass around them using blanket stitch. Because the seagrass ribs were relatively soft, the tension of the stitching tended to twist them slightly to the right, which made the final piece look a little unbalanced.

As a felter, I am used to shaping a piece while fulling it – the final form can look very different from the original! So I thought I would try reshaping this piece to emphasise the twisting even further. The paper yarn is strong but flexible, so this worked out quite well.

twisted coiled seedpod

This week we were working with natural materials, so I repeated this form using strips of cordyline as the ribs, dried daffodil leaves as the core, and waxed polyester string for stitching.

The cordyline was much stiffer than the seagrass, and I found that if I pulled the ribs together at the top, the coiled sections between the ribs bulged outwards, producing a completely different shape.

coiled daffodil leaves

It’s a useful reminder of how you can achieve completely different results with different materials, and making samples is a very worthwhile exercise. 🙂

Prism Textiles “Fragility” exhibition

My first exhibition with Prism, the international exhibiting group of textile artists, is fast approaching. The theme is “Fragility”, and you can get a glimpse of the various ways this has been interpreted on the Prism blog.

My piece, called “One in Five”, was inspired by the effect we humans are having on our fragile environment: scientists at Kew Gardens estimate that one in five plant species are in danger of extinction due to activities such as intensive farming, deforestation and construction.

I have made five stylised seeds combining felt and paper yarn, to represent the fragility of the environment in general as well as their own precarious existence.

The five seeds loosely represented are sycamore (maple in US), dandelion, bean pod, physalis and sweet chestnut.

Sycamore seed by Kim WinterDandelion seed by Kim WinterBeanpod by Kim WinterPhysalis by Kim WinterSweet chestnut by Kim Winter

The hardest part was working out the best way to display them, as in the London gallery we cannot suspend things from the ceiling. Luckily, I managed to find a windfall branch with an interesting shape and lots of lovely lichen. This can be mounted on the wall with the seeds hanging from it.

One in Five by Kim Winter

All photos of my work by Owen Llewellyn.

Fragility runs at Hoxton Arches, Arch 402, Cremer Street, London E2 8HD, from 29 May to 9 June. The private view is on Tuesday 28 May, 7-8.30pm, to which you are all warmly invited!